The Townfolk Project, Documenting Oakland’s Community

4 min
Portraits of Oakland residents in 'The Townfolk Project' by Scott La Rockwell. (Scott La Rockwell)

About two years ago photographer Scott La Rockwell started taking photos of longtime Oakland residents and interviewing them about their roots in the Town.

He published the pieces online, calling it: The Townfolk Project. Initially, he planned to take photos of 100 folks from a cross section of backgrounds and neighborhoods. But with COVID-19, things slowed down. He’s sitting on about 30 published interviews on his Instagram page.

But this past summer, when store owners boarded up their buildings to discourage any vandalism that might come after peaceful protests, Scott’s project got an unexpected canvas: the windows of a building on 13th and Broadway.

Now, about a dozen of Scott’s photos of artists, activists and folks who’ve been putting on for the greater good of Oakland are mounted on one of the most prominent corners of the city.


This week, we talk to Scott La Rockwell about the importance of showing the community to itself, especially at a time when people are so divided.

Scott La Rockwell's photos mounted on 13th and Broadway in Oakland.
Scott La Rockwell's photos mounted on 13th and Broadway in Oakland. (Scott La Rockwell)

Below are lightly edited excerpts of conversations I've had with Scott La Rockwell.  

Pen: What is your mission as an artist, as a photographer?

Scott: Stories, I really enjoy getting photos of people that tell stories. And then I love finding myself in places, taking photographs where people are like, how the hell did you get that? Whether it's a photo of the Bay Bridge through the Bay Bridge or a Hells Angels funeral. I just love finding stories in little niches in people's lives to share with people.

Pen: What have you been doing over the past six months of shelter in place? 

Scott: A lot of downtime for sure. The market has slowed up a lot, especially because of all the social distancing. But I have been fortunate enough to do a good amount of work for two clients, World Central Kitchen, which is a nonprofit run by chef José Andrés, helping to keep restaurants in Oakland open. It's receiving funding from another large nonprofit started by Steph and Ayesha Curry called Eat. Learn. Play. So I've been focusing a good amount of my time and energy into documenting those stories of restaurant owners, the people involved in the restaurants, and getting food out to the people in need.

Photographer Scott La Rockwell holding a camera and sitting on a stoop in Oakland.
Photographer Scott La Rockwell holding a camera and sitting on a stoop in Oakland. (Pendarvis Harshaw)

Pen: How does that feel to be supporting business at a time when they need it most?

Scott: I think that's the best kind of work that you can do, when you do work for other people. I don't think as a business person you're ever going to lose by supporting your community. I think the more that you give to your community and generate resources and opportunities for your community and become a solutions provider for your community, the better off you are, and the better off we all are…   And then working on next moves for The Townfolk Project... there's some some good stuff going on in there as well. 

Pen: You haven't been completely laying low, the Townfolk Project is on the side of a building on 13th and Broadway in the heart of downtown. How does that feel to have your photos live and direct in the heart of the town? 

Scott: It was a great, man-- It was a great experience to see the photos that we've been taking and the work up in the actual community.  I didn't tell anybody that it was up... Because Oakland’s small. It's a city, but it feels more like a village. Man, before I know it, people were just like, 'oh, my photo is on 13th in downtown. My photo is on Broadway.’ So it was really cool to see that reaction from everybody in in a positive way. That felt really, really, really good to see the work out there and to see the people who have graced me with their time and energy and all that for the interviews to be representative of the community. Excited to see their photos.

Poet and educator Jazz Hudson holds her young son, Selah.
Poet and educator Jazz Hudson holds her young son, Selah. (Scott La Rockwell)

Pen: It was really pleasurable to see Mr. Cherry go down there and take photos in front of himself. He got decades of experience in Oakland. He's a historian. And so for him to be recognized in public. For me, it brought about a sense of familiarity. Man, downtown is changing so much with businesses shuttering and the streets being repaved and changed. It just looks different, it feels different. So for me to go down there, and I see Leon “Dnas”, you know, as my partner since I was fifteen years old.

Scott: ... If you went to a certain area of Oakland it had more of a small town feel. And you're gonna cross paths with certain individuals. So I hope that the photos are bringing some type of that type of feeling a connection.

 

Scott La Rockwell and Pendarvis Harshaw (L–R).
Scott La Rockwell and Pendarvis Harshaw (L–R). (Ashleyanne Krigbaum)

Part of this episode was first broadcast on Apr 26, 2019.

Rightnowish is an arts and culture podcast produced at KQED. Listen to it wherever you get your podcasts or click the play button at the top of this page and subscribe to the show on NPR One, Spotify, Apple Podcasts, TuneIn, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts.

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